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LED Fairyland – Sounds and Light Art Flourish in Burning Man's Desert Utopia

Burning Man: the desert festival on the tip of everyone's tongue in recent times. This past week I finally had a chance to visit the magical Black Rock City, which is erected and razed once a year for ten days in the Nevada Desert. The festival started as a small beachside bonfire in San Francisco in 1986, and has been growing in magnitude and reach ever since, with this year's event attracting about 68,000 people at its peak. With tickets scarce and a DIY approach that requires all participants to bring their own food, water and shelter, this isn't your typical festival experience. In the words of one of the artist organizers who presented work at this year's event, Pablo Gonzalez Vargas, it is “how the world could potentially be.”

The first thing you notice after dragging your clunky dust-covered suitcases and camp gear through mind numbing desert heat is that the social atmosphere is different. People from around the world are working around you to create shade structures, set up their free art events and bars, and to costume each other. People stop you and give you gifts, such as food, drinks, art, jewelry, compliments, and advice. People are dancing and riding by you in full body paint on unicorn bikes. The organizers of Burning Man practice a Leave No Trace policy, and the extent to which this is taken seriously by attendees is notable: I saw but one or two pieces of trash laying on the ground in the entire week I was there.

Eidolon Panspermia Ostentatia Duodenum (epod) by Michael Christian and Dallas Swindle. Photo courtesy of Mikael Henaff.

When your first night on the playa hits, it's hard to process what you are seeing. We walked out into what we had discovered is a huge geographical area to miles and miles of moving light art installations. The desert is pitch black at night, so attendees cover their costumes and bikes in lights. As you walk out through the playa, around the Man towering over everything in the center, massive, illuminated, fire-blowing art cars pass you by with crowds of fairies and cyborgs riding on top. You find climbable sculptural installations, interactive light displays and free grilled cheese sandwiches. Once we were able to get some bikes which we had rented on site, it was much easier to weave throughout the event to try to see everything, but they say it's a good thing if you've seen 10% by the end.

Peter Hudson's "Eternal Return" sculptural zoetrope. Photo courtesy of Alessandra DeLaCruz.

One of my favorite installations, Peter Hudson's sculptural zoetrope, was located way out in what is called the “deep playa,” past where camps are allowed. We came across “Eternal Return” from a distance in relative dark. Until we got about ten feet in front of the piece, it appeared to be two rings of people jumping through the air via impossibly dangerous gymnastic stunts. The piece is based on ancient concepts of cyclical existence and according to the artist, is meant to “celebrate the joy and ecstasy of life, not just repeated, but begun anew.”

Revelers observe an interactive LED light installation. Photo courtesy of the author.

There's no overstating the quality of the music scene at Burning Man. We had no idea what we were in for with moving stages, pyramid stages, fire-blowing stages, and beyond. All types of music can be found at the event, including jazz and even a philharmonic, but the electronic stages really drew us out to dance the night away. Bushwick area camps such as the legendary Robot Heart stage and Disorient constituted a large presence on the playa, with custom designed sculptural sound stages positioned in the 10:00 and 2:00 zones. Robot Heart threw daily parties at sunrise with their robot installation positioned in the air on a tall crane, while Disorient (a camp of about 300 people who build their stage in a Bushwick warehouse) featured line ups of deep house and disco funk in an enclosed dome.

The Mayan Warrior art car and sound camp from Mexico. Photo courtesy of the author.

One of the most striking art cars, The Mayan Warrior, served as an epic sound stage created for an audience of up to 3,000. Designed by Pablo Gonzalez Vargas, the piece was built by a team in Mexico over the course of several years and reportedly cost over a million dollars to create. The results are stunning: the vehicle resembles a massive LED lit dragon, and the warrior's massive face has been hand painted by legendary psychedelic artist Alex Grey. In an interview with Landr Vargas states that the piece was “inspired from DMT trips, ancient Mayan culture, crop circles and the principles of sacred geometry.” The djs could be heard playing slow bass music and deep house just past the Man most nights.

The Kazbah's pyramid sound stage. Photo courtesy of the author.

The Kazbah, a relatively small stage on 10 o'clock, brought a large line up of deep minimal techno for their dusk to dawn parties. The stage structure was relatively simple but brilliant: a narrow, illuminated pyramid emitted a purple laser beam into the sky, pointing to the Sirius star. Djs were positioned in the Pyramid's eye and could be viewed from all sides. This Bay Area camp brought some of the best new and established names in the cerebral EDM scene, such as Acid Pauli, Lee Foss, Lovecraft, and Lee Burridge, along with a host of resident djs.

Raver inside an LED installation. Photo courtesy of Mikael Henaff.

While I found the life changing experience of Burning Man to be worth the difficult journey we had to plan to get there from New York, it must be mentioned that the dedication required and the costs of attending the event make it prohibitive for some. Average ticket costs are $380 and it took us several online attempts, a waitlist and six months to snag a coveted pair. Transportation by plane to the area, bus tickets and supplies to eat, drink and sleep in the desert were constantly mounting costs which we saved for all year. Once you get inside the gates and see the absolute absence of corporate brands and the festival's Ten Principles at work it all seemed worth it to us, a miraculous utopia away from the market concerns of the “default world.” Yet the absence of racial minorities on the playa was striking to me. I spoke to Disorient organizer and dj Douglas Hart at the end of the festival, and he suggested that the idea behind Burning Man should be expanded regionally (for example, to the East Coast) to increase accessibility for a number of people. Regardless, it must be noted that in a world where market concerns often reign supreme in the presentation of music and art, the festival operates in stark contrast via a vast network of volunteers. The high level of individual investment required seems like a the most important ingredient for preserving the unique form of creative expression at Burning Man – something that cannot be photographed, only felt.

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